Cover Photo: Los Angeles, 1992 and 2014. photos via Metro Library and Archive
Los Angeles, 1992 and 2014. photos via Metro Library and Archive

A Walker, in the City

Wandering the past and present of downtown L.A.

On a Saturday in early October, I drive to my son’s apartment in Koreatown, walk with him the four blocks to Wilshire and Western, where we will take a Purple Line train downtown. The day is warm, tail end of another heat wave, and as we wander the sidewalks of his neighborhood, I find myself confronting, once again, the sensation of existing in the present and the past. When he was little, we used to do this once or twice a month, park in the ten-hour lot between Wilshire and Sixth Street, ride the train to Pershing Square, where we would emerge and cross the street to Angels Flight, spend an hour or so traveling up and down. Back then, a decade and a half ago, the system was just a whisper, really, just a promise, built but not yet integrated into any vision the city might have of itself. For us, the subway was more or less a theme-park ride, on which, for three dollars, we could get an all-day pass, the public transportation equivalent of the old Disneyland E ticket.

Today, as we make our passage to the Wilshire/Western station, we see all the elements of a complex urban landscape—elderly men and women pulling shopping carts; another father and son, younger than we are, off to shoot hoops at a schoolyard; a pair of twentysomethings on their bicycles: all of it so ordinary, so nondescript I might not even notice, were we anywhere other than Los Angeles.

Wilshire/Western. photo downtowngal

Los Angeles A to ZThe New York Times

photo  Chris

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That night in downtown, the streets were jammed, hundreds if not thousands of people, most of them young and looking for action, although this is not to say they weren’t residents. I have a former student who spent many years living just a block or so from here on Main Street. “To gauge downtown’s resurgence,” she once suggested, “look for dogs.” She’s right; people don’t bring their dogs to work, and they don’t bring them when they go clubbing on a Saturday night. This same student also liked to tell me that the most effective measure of the economic or social status of a neighborhood has to do with whether the urine in the gutter is of the canine or the human kind.

mercadoLos Angeles Times

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We pass the Los Angeles Theatre and the Palace, stop at Loew’s State Theatre, an old vaudeville and movie house on the corner of Seventh Street, opened in 1921. The last film was screened here in 1998, but for the past six years, it’s been a Spanish-language church, and since services are in session, we go in. For moment, I feel as if we are trespassing, as if we are someplace we shouldn’t be. Nobody but me, however, seems to notice, and as we pass through the lobby and into the auditorium, we hear not a word nor see a gesture to suggest we shouldn’t be where we are. There is no preacher, just a movie screen on which a sermon is projected at low volume. A handful of worshippers sit scattered in the theatre’s seats. My son murmurs something about the bones of the building, how it might look after renovation, the dome of the ceiling, the depth of the stage.

David L. Ulin is the author, most recently, of Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles. It was longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. His novel Ear to the Ground, written with Paul Kolsby, will be published in April. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he is the former book critic and book editor of the Los Angeles Times. Photo credit: Noah Ulin.